quaker fencer

kathz isn't quite my name. I may be a Quaker. If I'm a fencer I'm a bad one and I don't do sabre. If I'm a Quaker I'm a bad one - but you've worked that out already. Read on. Comment if you like. Don't expect a reply.

Location: United Kingdom

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

fencing in Paris

I was walking by the Seine when I saw them - children in masks and tabards practising l'escrime. I think it was a first attempt for them. The instructors explained the rules, made sure the kits fitted, furnished the children with soft swords and set them off.

Worried that my interest would be misinterpreted, I explained that I fenced at home and added, wistfully, that I wished I could join in. The instructor sympathised and said that, if I found another adult, I too could fence.

It would have been good to fence in Paris by the Seine, even with a play-sword, but I was walking alone and wasn't sure of the etiquette for challenging a stranger to a duel. (I also feared I might do rather badly.) So after watching some more, I headed off, walking almost the full length of Paris Plage - the summer beach that closes a main road in Paris so that Parisiens can exercise or bask in the sun.

It was my second day in Paris. The night before I'd visited the Comedie Francaise to see their production of Cyrano de Bergerac. I'd been rereading the play in French since I boarded the Eurostar and was glad I'd done so - I can read French fairly easily but was out of practice at dealing with the speed of the spoken language.

I've seen Cyrano on stage before, notably with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack, as well as seeing the film with Gerard Depardieu. But this production was different. The British productions I've seen have worked to establish the 17th century detail and have tried to create an entirely realistic setting, even though the play is - I hate to admit it - not entirely plausible and the characters speak in verse. I'd expected something similar at the Comedie Francaise, which used to have a reputation as a guardian of tradition - or, to put it another way, as a producer of staidly conventional productions. The photos outside warned me to expect something different. Some of the characters seemed to be wearing top hats and surely Roxane was flying ...

Of course, the French have a greater familiarity with Cyrano and other French classics than the British do and I imagine the play is performed much more frequently in France. Directors and companies are bound to discover new ways of presenting it, just as British (and other) directors explore Shakespeare in different ways. At first it was strange to see Cyrano at the theatre encountering 19th century gentlemen, but it connected the play to the time of its author, Edmond Rostand. The production explored layers in the play, showing stage pictures which presented the emotion of the characters, so that Roxane really did fly when listening to Cyrano's words on her balcony. The buildings retreated and she hovered ecstatically in mid-air. (Later she flew in a more familiar sense, arriving at the siege with Ragueneau in a primitive flying machine.)

There's one scene in Cyrano which I've never really enjoyed before - the scene in which Cyrano converses with de Guiche about the moon so as to delay him while Roxane marries Christian. But in this production, Michel Vuillermoz as Cyrano was enthralling in his comic techniques, which seemed to draw on traditions going back to commedia dell'arte. The production as a whole made more of the comic elements than I expected. It was moving too - and for the first time I really felt for Christian, in love with Roxane and frustrated by his lack of eloquence.

While in most production Cyrano has been handsome apart from his long nose, at the Comedie Francaise, the contrast between Cyrano and Francoise Gillard's Roxane was so clear that his love for her really did seem hopeless from the start. The miracle was her final realisation that she had loved Cyrano for his language.

But even so, as he dies, Cyrano sees himself only as what he lacks - the genius of
Molière and the beauty of Christian: "Molière a du génie et Christian était beau!" In his final line, Cyrano links himself only to the white plume of the Gascony cadets - his panache.

I'd have liked more on-stage fencing, of course, but that's almost always the case. It was a wonderful evening and I'll try to write more about it elsewhere, when I have time.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008


My blade glided harmlessly past my opponent's forearm towards his heart. I accelerated forward - and missed. I didn't just miss his heart. I missed his chest altogether. My blade slid under his arm and stabbed the air, as if I were taking part in a peculiarly incompetent stage fight. Then he hit me without difficulty.

Luckily the evening wasn't all as bad as that, though I was still exhausted from the previous week at work. The chef said she was tired too and we took a break when the coach taking footwork practice kept us in an exhausting routine so step, lunge, reprise faster, step forward, step back, lunge, reprise faster, step back. My calves and thighs hurt after only three or four sequences. I'm still not as fit as I was before succumbing to policeman's foot and then falling from the loft.

I don't think the chef can have been all that tired because I managed only a few hits against her. She was so much faster and more accurate than me that I felt compelled to mention that I had, at least, beaten her at Scrabulous. (It doesn't happen often - I won one of three games we were playing simultaneously and she won the other two. )

The chef's lunge gets longer every week. I suspect mine has a tendency to look more like an energetic shuffle. The chef is probably helped by her energetic cycling and regular visits to the gym. She's taken up running too, which seems to involve an obstacle course of geese, gooseherds and children's tricycles as well as congratulatory admirers. She duggested I join her but it doesn't seem a very good idea. Apart from continuing pain in my heel, I'm pathetically slow. She'd probably do at least two circuits to my one - if I managed one.

I did, however, make a discovery. The chef is good at defending against hits from above, because she's one of the smaller fencers in the club. While it seems obvious that, as the taller fencer, I should be able to hit her from above, I have more success hitting from below her arm. My best hits were to her thigh as she advanced or began to lunge. (It was probably a mistake to tell her this after we had fenced.)

I managed more hits against my second opponent of the evening - a better and taller fencer. There were disasters, like missing his chest, but I also managed a decent number of arm hits. I thought he was probably letting me hit him but the chef reckoned he was tired. That made me feel better.

After two opponents the tiredness was the real victor of the evening. I wanted to leave while I could still cycle home without swerving or falling off. The chef and I left together. and I got home safely, although I did swerve from time to time. Unfortunately my plans for next week mean I'll miss the one-hit epee (again). I was sorry to realise that but pleased to find that August fencing was suggested. As I said goodbye and "see you in a fortnight," I looked forward to more chances of practice - I'm beginning to feel almost fit. Alas! - I heard a day later that the floor of the hall is to be replaced. It will be out of use for some weeks. That probably means no fencing till September.

I'll try to work on lunges, speed and accuracy - on my own. It doesn't feel quite right. Fencing isn't the same without the immediate inducement of stabbing somebody.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

missing fencing and watching the nationals

I was looking forward to fencing. It was a tough day at work so I was happy to anticipate the joy of stabbing someone. Not the chef, as she was staying away, but surely someone would give me the opportunity of a few hits.

But the computer I'd borrowed had different ideas. Perhaps it feared I was neglecting it. Or perhaps it was cross about overwork - I'd been typing frantically on the train. I got into work, plugged in my laptop, switched it on, and ... nothing.

I'd copied most of the paper I was writing elsewhere but the media files were another matter. I begged the technicians for help. Although busy, they found time to look at the computer and eventually managed to copy most of the files. It was the media files that were missing.

One of the technicians stayed late to help. I was ever so grateful but my hand itched to hold my epee. I could go late, I thought, as the technician finally searched in vain for the missing files. "Leave it with me," he said at last. "I'll do it tonight or in the morning."

I'd planned to work on the paper that day and was beginning to wonder how much I could do after fencing. Work and anxiety had added to my tiredness. Still, I promised myself, I could manage an hour ... just a couple of bouts.

As I struggled out of the building with books and bags, I realised how heavy the rain was. I was glad I'd put on my summer mac ... until the rain started to leak through before I'd left the courtyard. After ten minutes I was soaked to the skin, apart from my feet. I was so soaked I didn't notice the inches-deep puddle.

Before I reached the station, I knew I wasn't going to fence. Twenty-five minutes in a train wearing wet clothes was no preparation for anything but a hot bath and a good meal. Besides, I would work on my paper.

Gloomily, after supper, I sat down to write more, only to discover I'd left the main book I needed in my office. It wasn't a good day.

Despite the setbacks, the paper happened. I wondered what to do when it was over, especially as my son was staying with friends for the weekend. I didn't wonder for long. Friends from my fencing club were competing in the nationals so I decided to take the train to Sheffield to support them.

It was easy enough to find my way from the station to the tram and from there to the English Institute of Sport. And as soon as I arrived I saw a club member whose wife was fencing in the women's sabre competition. He gave me directions, which I promptly forgot at the sight of the huge main hall with its indoor athletics tracks set out with more than thirty pistes. I watched the epeeists for a while, trying to see Jon Willis, but was unlucky. Still, I marvelled at the skill and speed, wishing I could be half as good.

Eventually I found my way to the second hall, where the sabreurs were camping. Their poules didn't begin till the afternoon but they had brought drinks and the kind of picnics that help fencers maintain their energy levels. I can't remember how many pistes there were in all - at least 54 in the glossy new building. Our leisure centre is pretty good but this was in another league. But there were the usual bags of fencing kit left at the edge of the arena and fencers in kit called up to referee. And while I welcomed the friendliness of the cafe staff and the cheapness of the food - I could afford lunch - the food itself was sadly tasteless. Perhaps my standards have risen since I started using an organic delivery scheme.

The fortunes of our club fencers varied. It was a shame to meet our best foilist - still in his mid-teens - and hear that his usual good form had deserted him after his first two poule bouts. He didn't make the cut. The sabreurs did better and I watched one woman, who started fencing when I did, gradually improve through her poule to win her final bout 5-0.

I would have liked to stay for the sabre Direct Eliminations but I felt tiredness steal up on me again. I drifted to the main hall and watched more epee. Then I headed back for the tram, train and home.

Later I heard that many of our club sabreurs had done well and they'd had a great day.

Two memories stay with me. There was an epeeist - I didn't see his name - swearing at himself and trying to force himself to win through anger. It didn't work. After he lost his temper with himself, he didn't score another hit. It was so unlike the bout on a neighbouring piste where a young epeeist stayed calm and defended well, making it hard for his stronger, more experienced opponent to gain points. The young epeeist lost too but he stayed calm and competed well, right till the end, and his bout was a pleasure to watch.

The other memory was to do with breeches. I couldn't stop myself from asking a young sabreuse, "Where did you get your breeches?" "Leon Paul," she replied. "They make them specially for the Cornish team." I know I don't live in Cornwall and I know I'm not a good enough fencer but I want to be in the Cornish team. They get to fence in BLACK breeches.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

stop hit

Fencing was crowded (again) and I was tired (again).

On this occasion, the tiredness was assisted by a party on the previous night. The chef was there too and had conrtibuted a splendid pavlova to the proceedings. And, after Pimm's on the lawn, followed by wine with food, she made her speciality cocktail - the Left Bank martini, which has a fabulous drink and the sort of kick you notice at the first sip. I , don't suffer from hangovers, which is just as well, but after a few minutes fencing the chef, I began to flag.

It was crowded yet again and we spent much time in conversation, hoping to get back on the electric piste. Our talk ranged from literature to the chef's planned move to Paris, where she has now found a flat with good kitchen near a large fencing club that is large enough to have four dedicated epee pistes. I am envious. Eventually, as it became apparent that we were likely to wait a long time for another bout - and neither of us was particularly energetic - the chef began to analyse our fencing. She pointed out that we were given to simultaneous attacks, with the result that most of our hits were doubles. "We need to learn how to parry," she declared.

I agreed though I have some hesitation about my ability to parry. For all my efforts, my wrist isn't strong enough to parry fierce attacks, particularly when they catch my blade in an envelopement. Work on feinting and deceiving the blade might be helpful - although my lack of speed is a further handicap. However, practice and coaching are always helpful and encouraging. We headed to one of the coaches who seemed to be detaching himself from the beginners and asked for some help. While waiting we were assigned to a small fencer - a 9-year-old would-be epeeist - and asked to show her some helpful techniques.

I had my usual anxieties - was I holding my sword correctly and could I really show anyone anything? But I looked at the girl's enthusiasm and decided that female epeeists deserved all the encouragement they could get. Soon I was standing with my arm extended, asking her to hit to forearm, upper arm and shoulder - and she was smiling despite the weight of the sword. The chef stood beside the small fencer offering further assistance and advice. That's another epeeist in the making, perhaps, though I think I'd hesitate to hit someone so very small.

At last it was time for the coaching session. The chef is quicker to pick things up than I am but the coach is helpful and encouraging. He decided we should work on the stop hit, which involves taking the blade in various ways (simply, by circling it first) and continuing to control it so that an opponent can't reach your body while your blade, sliding down the other, achieves a hit. (When the stop hit moved into octave, the chef was a little anxious about the danger this might entail for our male coach but I was mainly concerned to fix my blade somewhere in the right region.)

It all seemed manageable as we practised the stop hit in slow motion and then at greater speed. But when it came to fencing a couple of points with the coach, my concentration and blade control went haywire. I noticed that the chef won her points, however. She'll be pretty dangerous in Paris.

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